Free Fallin’

I’m riding shotgun in Hawthorne’s truck, and we’re on our
way to jump out of a plane together. As the truck bumps along to
Perris Valley, I’m having one of those moments where the
same word keeps repeating itself in my head: “requiem.” Requiem, requiem, requiem.
My brain has been saying it all day.

Hawthorne is a writer and the object of my affection. Riding
out to the sky-diving school, we discuss the word “requiem.” I joke that “Free
Fallin'” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers will be my requiem, should my
skydiving video survive me. Granted, I’m nervous about the jump. But I’m
nervous about the day as well. It feels like a possible turning point in our
relationship. “Requiem,” while dramatic, is feeling like a particularly
appropriate theme.

We discuss other good words too, like “effuse” and
“equinox.” We discuss lots of things. That’s what we do. Hawthorne’s a good
talker, and more rare, a good questioner. I’m not one for personal confessions,
but he draws me out. Even while he’s driving, he’s figured out a system for
watching the road and me at the same time, of looking into my eyes with his —
which are bright blue, by the way.

Forget the skydiving, this guy could kill me. I haven’t
jumped yet, but it’s all over for me, anyway. I’m too scared to confront him
with my feelings, and too scared to find out the depths of his. Taking the leap
out of a perfectly good airplane somehow seems far less scary.

I realize it all sounds very fifth grade, but this guy is so
beautiful that my usually healthy self-image fails me. We’re so unlikely even
as friends. He, a 6-foot-1 Irish Catholic farm boy from Ohio, with blond curls
and a rough past, and me, a nice Jewish girl from a good home in the Valley.
But somehow our relationship evolves: He teaches me fighting stances; I teach
him bits of Hebrew. He’s taken to calling me Yofi, a Hebrew word that means
great. I particularly love the nickname because of its other meaning: beauty,
which Hawthorne doesn’t know.

It’s my birthday today. Taking stock, life’s pretty good, if
maybe a little on the dull side. Am I where I want to be? Do I have success,
wealth, love? I’m forced to settle for a small amount of the first two, and a
healthy, albeit platonic, dose of the third for right now. Life holds no drama,
so I might as well jump out of a plane — especially if Hawthorne’s going with

I’m secretly hoping the day will bring us closer together.
Doesn’t it mean something that he chose to go skydiving with me? Perhaps facing
death will make him confront his true feelings. We’ll reach the ground so
caught up in the moment that we’ll just have to kiss, or, at the very least,
maybe I’ll feel emboldened enough to tell him how I feel. I’ve anticipated 100
scenarios, with the kissing one a clear favorite, but up in that plane, that’s
suddenly the last thing on my mind.

We’re both given a tandem partner — a professional sky diver
to whom we’re strapped for safety. I’m going first with my partner, Mike. My
mouth’s gone dry and my top lip sticks to my teeth as I smile goodbye at Hawthorne.
Then Mike and I move to the opening on the side of the plane and perch at the
edge. I’m prepared to jump, but turns out it’s more of a fall. Or a little-kid
dive, actually. Like how 5-year-olds will stand at the side of the swimming
pool, and point their hands out in front of them in the best mimic of diving
form they can muster, but then just kind of fall in, hands and feet first.
That’s me. At the edge of the plane, down on one knee, I lean forward, taking
Mike with me, and suddenly, it’s just us and gravity.

Back arched now, arms and legs splayed out, all I feel is
wind, so much wind I’m breathless. I’m taking in gulps of air, swallowing hard,
eyes wide open at the sky around me — the beautiful orange sunset and wink of
crescent moon. And I guess Hawthorne jumps after me, but I don’t look. I am
consumed. The earth may swallow me up.

One solid minute, then a sudden jerk and I’m vertical. Mike
pulled the chute and we’re floating back down to earth, laughing
uncontrollably, beyond euphoric.

We touch down safely and I’m immediately swept up in
Hawthorne’s enormous bear hug, which is wonderful, even without the kiss I’d
wished for.

For a while, we just sit in the diving school’s bar, sipping
beers, grinning stupidly and talking the way we always do — about everything
real, except how I really feel about him. And I guess I feel I’ve conquered
enough fear for one day. There’s always next year for emotional bravery. Â

Keren Engelberg is the calendar editor for The Journal